Happy New Year, Trees and People Who Are Like Trees

January 20, 2011 is Tu Bishevat, which means “the 15th of the month Shevat” and falls—are you ready?—on the 15th of the month Shevat.  To spice things up a bit, it is also the new year for trees, which has something to do with Leviticus 19:23-25 and figuring out when you can start eating fruit from trees, though the holiday is not actually mentioned there.

Like all Jewish holidays, this has its traditions mostly having to do with fruit or trees. To get into the Tu Bishevat mood, you can eat a nice piece of new fruit, or each one of the “Seven Species” (Deuteronomy 8:8) of the land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and finally dates or honey. Or hey, eat all of them, or make up something new and original.

Some people have a Tu Bishevat seder which, as some of my grade school friends of long ago would have said, is “like a Passover seder only different.”  And since we are all about fruit and trees on this day, the environment becomes a matter of concern, so Tu Bishevat is essentially the Jewish Earth Day. If it were a political party, Tu Bishevat would be the Green Party. 

Some draw a spiritual application, citing Deuteronomy 20:19 in the translation “Man is a tree of the field” and try to figure out all the ways people are like trees. Actually, the translation of that verse varies depending on your version of the Bible. Here, however, are some other verses that are less debatable about people, trees and fruit, worth meditating upon:

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.
But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3)

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:43-45)

And I even tried to look for Bible verses that relate to each of the Seven Species. I actually tried finding them in the New Testament, just to prove that it’s a Jewish book. I also found Passover, Hanukkah, a bris, Shavuot, a seder, and a bunch of other Jewish things in the New Testament, but that’s for another blog. Anyway, I found six out of seven of the species. Which seems OK, since one of the authors of the New Testament, Luke, was a Gentile anyway.

So this Tu Bishevat, and this whole month, why not meditate on these seven verses:

Wheat –

“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:24-25, Jesus speaking. People-as-nature metaphor.)

Barley –

“Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and the men sat down, about five thousand of them. Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” (John 6:9-14, at the Feeding of the Five Thousand.)

Grapes –

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? (James 3:9-12; I managed to get figs and olives in there, too. If grapevines can bear nothing but grapes, how come people made in God’s image don’t bear His character all the time? In a word: sin. See New Testament for solution).

Figs –

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” (John 1:47-49; OK, so it doesn’t really matter what kind of tree it was. But Jesus knew. Score one for omniscience.)

Pomegranates –

Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon; your mouth is lovely. Your temples behind your veil are like the halves of a pomegranate. (Song of Solomon 4:3, description of the songster’s bride; the Bible says things about the physical creation as well as spiritual things – after all, God created the physical world.)

Olives –

After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree! (Romans 11:24; Paul, the apostle, in a passage warning Gentile Christians, the wild branches, not to boast of superiority over Jewish people, the natural branches).

Dates/Honey –

John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. (Mark 1:6, describing the lifestyle of John the Baptist. I wouldn’t try that diet myself, but I like his advice on repenting of sin.)

If you have a thought to share about these verses, use the comments link in this article.


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Rich Robinson | San Francisco

Scholar in Residence, Missionary

Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.

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Connect with Jews for Jesus. No matter where you are on the journey of life, whether you’re Jewish or non-Jewish, a believer in Jesus or not – we want to hear from you. Chat with someone online or connect via our contact page below.  
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